Month September

  • Make Eid, Not War

    Ramadan is a celebration of togetherness and tolerance, so let’s break out the Eid sweets and put away the bitterness for good

    The best Eids are those you experience as a child. You are elated with tingles of excitement which send shivers of pleasure and anticipation through you. That inner excitement as Eid approaches never disappears because in its essence Eid is a very simple matter. You have fasted all month, suffered headaches and growling stomachs, re-arranged the routine of daily life, read more Qur’an than in the whole year most probably, tried your best to be nice to friends and family, and reflected on your own life and where it is going. You have been working hard, physically and spiritually and so the joy of Eid is simple because it is a celebration of an achievement that looks daunting and unachievable. The joy is pure because the task was undertaken in order to get closer to the Divine. Eid is exciting because it celebrates renewal, refreshment and rejuvenation.

    The physical and spiritual stretch has been enormous and as the month draws to its finale, you feel both exhausted and elated. It is the triumph of the achievement of spirit over body that makes Eid such an amazing event. As a community we experience more togetherness and unity than at any other time during Ramadan: we’ve all been in it together. Suddenly there is an explosion of love and trust. Until night before Eid. And then our spiritual and community synchronicity fizzles away under the weight of disagreement about the moonsighting.

    After a month of tolerance and understanding our togetherness vanishes oh-so-suddenly. Is it sapped by the multitude of phone calls round the world to establish if a sliver of crescent has been spotted? Is it the plethora of text messages that ratchet up our bills to the mobile network companies? Is it the uncertainty of whether to cook Eid breakfast or not?

    Ramadan is about unity of spirit. We reject the physical so we can concentrate on our connections as souls. As with hajj, when we fast, the outer is irrelevant. Each human being we come across who is in this state of worship is a beautiful thing for us to appreciate. Ramadan is the epitome of love, peace and goodwill to humanity. We know that “Allah cannot be contained anywhere in the universe except in the heart of the believer”, and “there are as many ways to know Allah as there are human beings”. Yet we insist on squabbling over our differences whether they be about Eid, the specifics of how to pray or do wudhu, what time the fast breaks, or how long or short out trousers, beards or headscarves should be.

    We then approach the final days when Eid is almost upon us, and as soon as we see the exit gates back into the dunya, the spirit of unity that we worked so hard to cultivate is lost. Worse still, we we take pleasure in returning to the intolerant bickering like an ex-smoker returning to his beloved cigarettes. Was the peace, harmony and unity of Ramadan so transient and painful that we longed to return to the disagreements and divisive behaviours that we experience all year round?

    If so, then it reveals more about us as a Muslim community than we might like to admit. If we had truly learnt to be as happy for our brothers and sisters as we are for ourselves, and if we had internalised the notion that we must celebrate difference, then we would not fall out over Eid the very second – and yes, it is the very single second – that Ramadan ends.

    If others are celebrating Eid before us, we should be joyful for them. They have reached their triumphant end. But we too have joy, for we are blessed enough to have an additional day of Ramadan. Who would wish to pass up even a single minute of this month? If we are celebrating Eid before others, then what better blessing than to prepare the way for those who are still to come and join us to start our fresh journey into the year? It’s Eid, let’s relax and chill out. We managed to keep it together under the physical duress of Ramadan, let’s not lose it over deciding which day is Eid, and then return to the mire of un-ending disputes the year-round. The Prophet says that any day that is better than the previous one is a day of Eid for the believer, so why not make it Eid every day?

    On a more practical note, if we celebrate all of our Eids together, then we can have up to three days of festivities, joy and of course highly delicious and calorific sweets. Instead of being stingy and tightening our belts towards Eid, let us be joyful, generous and above all happy enough spend a trio of exuberant days celebrating not only the completion of Ramadan, but also the immense achievement of learning to accept, support and celebrate our differences.

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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  • What is the meaning of hijab?

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  • Let Muslim Women Speak

    This just posted on the Guardian website at Comment is Free. Swing by and leave a comment.

    The last few weeks have been particularly eventful for Muslim women on Comment is Free. We would have felt extremely exhausted by all the excitement, were it not for the fact that – with the notable exception of Samia Rahman and Reefat Drabu – we were spared the ignominy of having to participate in the debate ourselves.

    AC Grayling started us off by equating the headscarf with an iron shackle and stating that Muslim women are complicit in their own oppression. In the process of attacking the abhorrent denial of freedom that Muslim women can wrongly suffer, Grayling (in)advertently takes away the very same freedom of choice to decide to wear the hijab if we choose.

    Julie Burchill bigged up Christianity, and in the process scathingly dismissed Islam and Muslim women. The only “Muslim” women she suggested as role models – Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji – were those she claimed had rejected Islam and were no longer Muslim.

    Cath Elliott on the other hand says she’s not holding out for women to emerge empowered from religious communities. She asks some good questions, such as why does God always appear to be a “He”? Why are the decision makers in politics and economics still predominantly male? But let’s not be weasely as some pundits are: Muslim men often wriggle out of addressing these difficult questions by deflecting attention away from themselves; and it needs to stop.

    Islamic theology has a strong framework for a blueprint of gender equality. I know that this is a deeply unfashionable thing for a Muslim woman to say, but let me explain.

    In Islam, God is not gendered, not physically located, nor carnal. There is no original sin – the two genders were “created from a single soul” which is entirely pure and good. God is “like nothing else” we can imagine, and in that sense is neither male nor female. However, in order to know God, there are at least 99 qualities or names, that are characterised as masculine and feminine, and both are equally critical in learning about and approaching the divine.

    Both genders have their own free will and have their own minds and must make their own contribution. Qur’anic and Islamic narrative has plenty of examples of such women: Mary’s immaculate conception is a strong vision of a woman raising a child as the head of the family without any men present. Hagar raises her son while her husband is away, Aasiya the wife of Pharaoh stands up to her dictatorial bloodthirsty husband. All of them are celebrated as role models for both men and women.

    Neither is marriage supposed to be a subjugation for women, but a completion and partnership for both man and woman. Every man that is held up as an example has a woman by his side (or you could argue it is vice versa) who is exemplary in her own right: Adam with Eve, Rachael with Moses, Mohamed with his wife Khadijah.

    With such a framework and strong and robust archetypes to inspire Muslims, what went wrong? How did we end up at a place where Muslim women are not fully empowered and find themselves at the unprotected and miserable end of cultural oppression endorsed in the name of Islam? There is no denying that Muslim women do suffer and have not been granted the freedoms, choices and opportunities that are the right all human beings, and guaranteed by Islam. But somewhere between the ideals of faith, and the pleasure of patriarchal power, that respect and those rights were lost.

    Which brings me neatly to the latest set of discussions about the proposed Muslim marriage contract. The idea of having a contract between the two parties is embedded in the very notion of Islamic marriage. The goal is to allow both parties to be clear about each other’s expectations of the relationship. It would probably help most couples – Muslim or otherwise to have such an agreement.

    The basic rights are guaranteed with or without the written document. These are that neither party can be forced to marry – they must do so of their own free will; that both parties may divorce should they choose, and that neither a woman nor a man can be prevented from marrying the person of their choice. As Reefat Drabu of the Muslim Council of Britain put it, the contract “is not a re-invention of the shariah.”

    So why the hoo-ha about the document?

    Ed Husain flags up the core of the real problem beautifully by recounting the tale of an imam who refused to conduct a nikah in the absence of the bride’s father’s permission. But he draws the wrong conclusion in thinking that the contract papers would have saved the day. Since the imam’s actions were clearly out of line with the principles of Islamic marriage it is unlikely that the document would have changed his mind.

    Instead, what the document champions is the notion that the behaviour of the people who hold authority needs to be questioned, or as Drabu puts it, the need of a “change in behaviours”. No authority should ever be too humble to be challenged. What it also highlights is the extreme need for accessible and easy to understand information.

    What is most important about the concept behind the marriage contract should be the reiteration to Muslim women – and to Muslim men – that knowledge is a powerful thing, and that empowerment and questioning are two fundamental components of the Islamic spirit.

    Knowledge is about learning and about being brave enough to ask questions, and about getting your voice heard: education and courage. Laying down challenges for the status quo can be a transformative rather than antagonistic activity.

    What that means for many commentators is that we may say, believe and do things which don’t fit in with the caricature of a Muslim woman who would be desperate to be “liberated” from Islam if only she knew it.

    You may find our voices reverberating with the view that we like being Muslim women, we just want to make our lives better and in line with true Islamic principles. It would be nice if those who debate vociferously about Muslim women would therefore move over and give us the seat at the table that we’re demanding

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